Set up in 1981, Panna National Park, Madhya Pradesh became a tiger reserve in early 1994. Fifteen years later, in 2008, Panna’s official tiger count stood at a shocking zero.
The revelation created a public furore, with forest department officials facing a nationwide backlash. They stood dejected; the damning statistics shattered their morale. The state committee set up to probe into the matter suggested the transfer of all the existing forest officials at Panna. But IFS officer R Sreenivasa Murthy, the newly instated Director of Panna Tiger Reserve, opposed the move, stating that the current officials already possessed a hands-on knowledge of Panna and her tigers.
Murthy and his team’s dedicated efforts in the Panna Tiger Reintroduction programme, amidst a series of failures and obstacles, has now resulted in 54 tigers including adult males, females and cubs calling the Panna reserve home.
The Story behind the Success
“Such remarkable success in tiger revival has not happened anywhere else in the world,” claims KS Bhadoriya, the present Director at Panna Tiger Reserve
Reintroduction of tigers in a buffer forest zone is a hugely painstaking task, involving risk at every step. It was no cakewalk in Panna as well.
“There had been multiple setbacks for us at the helm of some hopeful results, bringing us back to square one. For instance, the first male tiger we introduced in Panna strayed off the grid within ten days. It took an army of around 70 forest staff and four elephants to track him down a month later, without any signals from his ‘very high frequency’ (VHF) collar. We later re-released him in the wild,” narrates Murthy in a conversation with The Better India.
To understand the tiger reintroduction project, one has to know a bit about the socio-cultural demographics of the Panna region. Pardhi tribes, known to consider hunting as a parameter of valour and prowess, inhabit the outskirts of Panna National Park.
Before the imposition of a strict vigilance in Panna to check tiger poaching, the Pardhis often engaged in hunting the wild animal and allegedly engaged in the illegal trade of its body parts. “Often, the tigers would venture into human habitats in the vicinity of the forest and kill cattle. The villagers laid traps or poisoned some of the tigers to protect their cows and goats,” tells Murthy.
But, the main reason behind the extinction of tigers in Panna has to be the mindless poaching by outsiders. These poachers were trained to hunt discreetly in the night, evading the forest guards. They brutally hunted down every last tiger in Panna, until no tiger lived in the National Park.
When the administration tabled the tiger reintroduction programme in 2009, it involved a two-pronged approach. While the forest department, under Murthy’s supervision, focussed on repopulating the tiger reserve, the non-profit organisation, Last Wilderness Foundation (LWF), was roped in to relocate the Pardhi tribes and make them surrender hunting.
The Tiger Reintroduction Project
In March 2009, the administration chose to translocate two adult female tigers (T1 & T2) from Bandhavgarh and Kanha respectively, in the hope that they would mate with the recently-spotted last male tiger.
Unfortunately, a few days before the introduction of T1 & T2, the sole surviving male tiger in Panna also disappeared, bringing down the tiger count to an official zero. The project thus got postponed indefinitely.
The morale of the forest staff was in shambles. LWF conducted exclusive motivational sessions for them, guiding and training them for the long journey ahead.
In September 2009, after being transferred to Panna, Murthy ordered the revival of the project on a war footing, with a revised project plan. Before implementing his plan of action, Murthy openly spoke with the local tribals to take them into confidence.
“I pleaded them with folded hands to save the tigers.”
Murthy’s earnest appeal worked as the locals took ownership of the revival process, and vouched to refrain from hurting any wildlife.
Inside the forest, T1 & T2 came back in the picture and brought to Panna, this time along with another adult male (T3) from Pench National Park, Seoni, MP.
T3 was the tiger who infamously strayed off after ten days and needed an entire army of 70 forest guards with four elephants to track him. Interestingly, officials believe that perhaps, the tiger wanted to go ‘home’ to Pench, his original habitat. The incident was one of the rare instances in zoological history where a tiger displayed signs of ‘homing instincts’.
“Tracking a tiger in an open area is inherently difficult. There was no signal from the VHF collar. Our staff ventured into all directions, despite communication hassles; they had to stay alert day and night. Finally, we managed to trace him after spraying an extensive area with female tiger urine, to lure T3 with pheromones from the opposite sex,” says Murthy.
Finally, T1 delivered the first litter of cubs in April 2010, followed by T2 in October of 2010. By the end of 2010, there were eight new tiger cubs in Panna along with T1, T2 and T3.
Next, the forest department brought in two five-year-old, orphaned male and female tigers from Kanha to Panna in March 2011.
In 2013, consecutive deaths of a few females, either naturally or due to intra-species conflict, led to a setback in the project. The next year, the team introduced another tigress in Panna from Pench.
According to current figures, of the more than 70 tigers that exist in the forested landscape between Vindhyas to Chitrakoot, Panna houses 54.
The other side of Panna’s success story
Vidya Venkatesh from LWF shares, “It was not easy to convince a community to give up their primordial vocation of hunting suddenly. Also, these people were impoverished and illiterate, with no other viable livelihood options. So, their rehabilitation was of utmost importance.”
LWF relocated the Pardhis to the nearby village of Gandhigram. They appealed to the aborigines to stop hunting and opt for alternate livelihood options. LWF trained the unlettered youth to become forest guides, escorting tourists on nature trails in Panna.
In fact, ‘Walk With The Pardhis’ is one of the favourites among the tourists.
The team also harnessed Pardhis’ in-depth knowledge about the forest and wildlife to promote tourism, as they started using their traditional skills to design traditional household items, decor weapons, seed carvings etc. Now, they even conduct workshops to demonstrate the art of bird whistles or seed carving to interested travellers.
The NGO also started boarding schools for young Pardhi girls and boys, to integrate them into mainstream careers in future.
At present, the foundation is working on-ground with 15 tribal settlements in the sensitive forested zone of Panna. They condition the tribes with reality-based scenarios – how and where to mitigate human-tiger conflict.
“For instance, if a tiger strays into their village, what steps they can take for protection without harming the tiger – LWF covers all these points,” informs Vidya.
“In the last ten years, Panna and her tigers have seen many ups and downs. Foes have turned friends, dreaded beasts have found a loving home. It is indeed heartwarming at a time when the tiger population in the world is under threat,” shares Murthy.
As Panna gears up for the Tiger Festival to celebrate the success, somewhere, deep within the forest, the national animal sleeps soundly after having found a safe abode.